APA STaR Publishes MIRC Story

This article was published last week in the newsletter of the Small Town and Rural Planning division of the American Planning Association. You can find them on Facebook, too.

Minnesota Intelligent Rural Communities:  Broadband as a Rural Development Strategy

By John C. Shepard, AICP, Southwest Regional Development Commission


America’s economy runs on broadband.  Ninety-five percent of small businesses that have computers have adopted broadband internet service, according to US Small Business Administration studies.  While other studies find a similar percentage of private households have access to broadband internet (about 64% have actually adopted broadband), that still leaves hundreds of thousands of small town and rural residents in states such as Minnesota shut out from this essential element of 21st Century infrastructure.

The Minnesota Intelligent Rural Communities (MIRC) project aims to do something about that.  Minnesota’s Blandin Foundation was awarded stimulus funding in 2010 by the federal Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP) to reach out to rural Minnesota (which we affectionately call “Greater Minnesota”) through education, training, technical assistance and removing barriers to broadband adoption.  The Blandin Foundation has a long record with their Broadband Initiative working to improve economic vitality in rural communities by encouraging development of telecommunications markets and infrastructure.  They also sponsor the Blandin on Broadband Blog and an annual Blandin Broadband Conference.  The Initiative has developed principles such as ubiquity, symmetry, and affordability that have guided their efforts in small towns and rural areas across the state.

There is a significant gap between rural and urban broadband adoption rates.  The small percentage of citizens still without access to broadband infrastructure is predominately located outside metropolitan areas.  In Minnesota, for example, stimulus-funded mapping by the Connected Nation organization found that only 3/4 of households in rural Jackson County along the Iowa border have access to broadband service, let alone subscribe.  Among the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, surveys found only about half of households with land-line telephones subscribe to broadband services.  Rural demographic characteristics such as an aging population, lower per capita income, and lower educational attainment compound the challenge.

The MIRC project draws on the Intelligent Community Indicators framework developed by the New York-based Intelligent Community Forum (ICF):  broadband, knowledge workers, digital inclusion, innovation, and advocacy.  “The basic question,” stated Robert Bell of ICF at a project training session, “is ‘Do you want your community to be a place your children can live in 20 years from now?’“  The internet today is like oxygen, Bell noted.  You don’t miss it until you try to do anything without it.  In the ICF framework, broadband infrastructure is an essential utility that provides a solid foundation for economic development.  The knowledge workforce of the new economy relies on broadband connectivity to spur innovation, in the public and private sector.  Digital inclusion efforts utilize broadband to empower ALL members of the community.  Marketing and advocacy, finally, celebrates success and helps cross-pollinate new ideas.

While broadband internet access underlies the MIRC project, broadband is just a tool to help create better communities.  Broadband is the journey not the destination.  The project doesn’t push cable modems or DSL, fiber optics or satellite, mobile or fixed wireless, nor dwell too much on improving asymmetrical upload/download speeds that place most of the US at a distinct international disadvantage.  Rather than debating 1 Mbps vs. 100 Mbps service, initial project reports are highlighting what speed it takes to do basic Voice-Over-Internet-Protocol (VoIP) vs. telemedicine increasingly necessary for an aging rural population.  Project partners discuss the technical details and are working with local leaders to better understand their options, but at the end of the day the intent is to make the technology transparent so we can all concentrate on helping create those places where our children want to live.

The Blandin Foundation assembled a core team of local experts, including Community Technology Advisors and Treacy Information Services, to support an array of partners from across Minnesota.  The core team is supporting local efforts with community technology planning to reduce the ‘digital divide’ and create a ‘culture of use’.  Public and non-profit MIRC partners include:

  • University of Minnesota Extension is delivering e-entrepreneurship training and technical support to small businesses in rural communities
  • MN Learning Commons is developing knowledge worker courses, career exploration and learning pathways
  • MN Workforce Centers are extending public access to training and new online learning opportunities
  • MN Renewable Energy Marketplace is providing technical assistance focused on creating new jobs in renewable energy industries
  • PCs for People, a non-profit organization that refurbishes previously-owned Windows machines, is distributing 1,000 free personal computers in Greater Minnesota.  Minnesota-based Atomic Learning joined w/PCs for People to provide free online training for computer recipients.
  • 11 Demonstration Communities, including small towns, rural counties, and a Native American reservation, are providing matching grants to local broadband projects
  • Regional Development Organizations are assisting with broadband advocacy and information sharing on development strategies
  • University of Minnesota-Crookston EDA Center is measuring progress in individual small towns and across rural areas of Greater Minnesota.

Regional planning and development organizations like the Southwest Regional Development Commission (SRDC) are helping bridge the gap between state-wide service providers and local communities.  Whether it’s helping entrepreneurs start new businesses or small towns chart their future land use plans, regional planners are looking at new ways to foster innovation in rural areas.  “Southwest Minnesota is seeing great local investment in broadband infrastructure,” said SRDC Chairman Gary Sorenson in 2010.  “Now we need to use that infrastructure to be competitive in the global economy.”

Public and private utility providers are making improvements to their networks.  The Southwest Minnesota Broadband Services group, for example, is leveraging experience from the Windom, MN, fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) project to build a 125-mile fiber ring to connect eight communities in Jackson County, which will greatly improve the existing low access rate.  The independent Woodstock Telephone Co, based in Ruthton, MN, population 284, is dropping FTTH to 1,300 access lines across 450 square miles of rural customers.  MIRC is working with these communities to help more people get better use out of that infrastructure.

MIRC is also supporting recommendations from other sources.  In 2010, the FCC issued a national broadband plan that stated “Like electricity a century ago, broadband is a foundation for economic growth, job creation, global competitiveness and a better way of life.”  The national plan proposes policies intended to remove barriers to broadband deployment and foster competition, according to analysis completed by the MIRC project team.  The Minnesota Ultra High-Speed Broadband Task Force reported in 2009 that “To remain competitive with other states and the rest of the world, Minnesota must make a long-term commitment to developing and maintaining ultra high-speed broadband capability.”  In addition to policy initiatives, the Task Force report to the Minnesota Legislature included action items for local government, such as:

  • Plan once; develop coordinated broadband, electric grid, and energy retrofit projects.
  • Dig once; coordinate infrastructure construction projects, such as roads and electrical grid improvements, with ubiquitous broadband projects.
  • Encourage conduit installation with new development.

Lessons will be emerging from the MIRC project as activities progress.  With the timeframe of the federal stimulus funding, MIRC has been something of a design-build project, so adjustments are being made as we go.  Organizations such as Connected Nation are compiling new and improved GIS maps of broadband availability in several states, and local projects continue to bring new and improved wired and wireless broadband access to more of our country.

It is increasingly apparent that planners need to treat broadband internet service the same as other basic utility networks like roads, water and sewer, or the electric grid.  We need to know about broadband, yes, but also about how knowledge workers in our community are using that infrastructure, and how we can include all members of our community in online opportunities.  Planners need to be advocates for the future of our communities.  The Intelligent Communities framework is a development strategy that small towns and rural communities can use to log on to that future.




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Minnesota Public Radio also did a nice piece last week on WindomNet and other local public-private partnerships bringing broadband to rural Minnesota.




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